Arsenal fall short of the mark when it comes to gathering their fifth win in five games, but do manage to remain unbeaten. It’s a consolation prize that isn’t likely to satiate the expectations of many Arsenal fans, but given the context of Arsenal’s season, just maybe, a point is a point is a point.
It started with a lineup that certainly will have raised eyebrows. At the time of the initial announcement, no one was aware of the injury precautions, so seeing a lineup without Kieran Tierney, Pablo Mari, Gabriel, or Partey starting took a moment to register. Easing Gabriel and Partey back into the fold makes sense, but hearing that Tierney and Mari were out with muscle soreness was a little worrying. That worry was compounded after the match when Arteta stated that Tierney would be getting an MRI done in the near future.
THAT worry was compounded five-fold after watching the performance of Arsenal’s left side. Usually the focal point of Arsenal’s rather biased left-sided attack, Maitland-Niles and Aubameyang struggled to find any sort of real connection with one another. Besides a one off early overlapping run from Niles, the only traction came when Aubameyang dribbled himself down the left side or when Saka was switched to the left back role to bring on Pepe as the right wing.
The left side of Arsenal’s attack was simply the most glaring example of stagnation in the Gunner’s attack, but as a whole Arsenal lacked the finesse to create enough chances, and weren’t efficient in front of net when they did have chances. 33% of the match was played in Crystal Palace’s third of the field, yet Arsenal were outshot and created less chances to score. Despite managing to register more shots on target, Arsenal produced less xG (expected goals) than their opponents — 0.62 – 0.77.
Some acknowledgement and praise needs to go to Crystal Palace who played an outstanding defensive match. They came in with their plan to stay tight and compact while looking to catch Arsenal on the break and its came off relatively well. They may be more content than Arsenal with the point, but some part of them will feel as thought they could have made more with their own chances.
You can see from Crystal Palace’s player positioning just how dedicated they were to keeping nine to ten men behind the ball and that forced Arsenal into a lot of side-to-side passing to try and find a way through or settling for long range efforts, not an Arsenal specialty. In fact, 55% (6) of Arsenal’s shots were from outside the box. Low percentage chances and a real signifier of just how frustrating Palace’s low block made Arsenal’s day.
It’s clear that Arsenal are a side that currently needs the sum of all it’s best parts in order to compete. They needed a front four that were on the same page, on their game, and buzzing to produce. Instead, it seems like none of them put their best foot forward at the same time. For stretches of the game, different attackers strut their stuff with partners unable to match. Saka had some nice moments out wide but couldn’t navigate his way through the traffic, Aubameyang started the second half really brightly and had a well hit effort go right at the keeper, while Lacazette struggled to repeat his recent form.
Arteta reacted well in the 64th minute bringing on Pepe by taking off Maitland-Niles who was incredibly poor given a chance at left back and moved Saka back to his old post. Many are requesting Arsenal fans have more sympathy for a player that has “been left out” but I can’t get behind that argument. Maitland-Niles has made 21 appearances in all competitions, 13 starts, and played 1218 minutes in the league — just 45 minutes less than Lacazette and more than Luiz, Willian, Nketiah, Soares, Kolasinac, and more. I think it’s fair to say that if they performed at that level the fanbase would be fuming.
His problem was one that has haunted him for some time now, and one many people will hold against him in every argument — he is loose with the ball in his distribution. He made some really great dribbles, he won all five of his duels, he had a splendid bit of play to work himself a shot, but he had a 77% pass completion percentage and played a fair amount of wayward passes with time and space.
There is some degree of discomfort on the left side, understandable, but when it comes to a player trying to make the most of every appearances, this performance may give Arteta a lot of pause in the coming matches should Tierney miss more. The idea of sacrificing Saka’s attacking play on the right wing to deploy his left foot and solid play in the back is a real consideration.
Pepe came on, not a lot changed. Arsenal’s attack stagnated, they couldn’t work the ball into Emile Smith Rowe in the areas between the lines as Palace forced him to take up very wide positions outside of the right winger, and Lacazette struggled to help him out in that hole, which is an aspect we have seen in recent games that led to more success.
In the end, it resulted in a match that saw Arsenal have 67% of the ball (73% in the second half), only create 11 shots and put 4 on target. A loss would have felt unjustified, although Crystal Palace’s Tomkins put a header off the bar and Benteke forced an excellent save from Leno that could have won them all three points. A draw is probably an accurate result.
Arsenal move to 24 points, they stay in the mid table positioning where they likely will be for much of the season, and now look ahead to a Monday clash with Newcastle.
Let’s talk takeaways!
The youth are the future but it comes with days like these
I am all aboard the youth train from here on out, assuming Arsenal don’t empty the accounts and get themselves a new marquee signing. Even if they do get that signing, maintaining routine time for young players like Saka, Martinelli, Smith Rowe, Gabriel, and even Nelson, in my opinion, is a huge priority.
These players have shown us what they are capable of and the results are really promising, however, with any reliance on youth, inconsistency is almost inevitable.
Some days are going to be days like yesterday and they just won’t have the “stuff”. It’s important not to hop on the bash train and acknowledge that on those days, the surrounding veterans need to step up, support, and carry a bit more of the burden. This has been a problem for Arsenal this season.
Early on, Arteta place his faith entirely in veterans and they didn’t repay the favor. Today, when Smith Rowe struggled to be as effective, Saka couldn’t quite click, Maitland-Niles played poor, Tierney was missing — the weight was never shouldered by Aubameyang, Lacazette, or their fellow experience teammates.
This isn’t to put the loss on their shoulders either, you win and lose as a team in football, but considering Arsenal are in a position right now where they look like a completely different side without their young guns firing is worrisome. Why is it worrisome? Because as great as youth are, they will have some days like today.
As Smith Rowe gains respect, the road gets tougher
In the last five games, Smith Rowe has impressed more and more and more. With that, there was always a point in which opposition was going to have to respect that and scheme how to stop it.
In my prematch prediction blog, I actually voiced that I thought Emile Smith Rowe would struggle against Palace, and it was for this reason that I tweeted a similar thought before the match started.
I’m not sure it would be fair to say he “really” struggled, but it was clear that Palace saw Arsenal’s success when he receives the ball between the lines in dangerous areas, know Arsenal have struggled without someone between the lines this season, and came the conclusion that forcing him into wide areas with their low block would frustrate Arsenal’s attack.
You can see from ESR’s heat map how wide to the right he was pushed, and it resulted in him having to operate much further from the goal and in a much less dangerous area. He managed to create a few opportunities, but mostly from the wide-right channel which didn’t have that same dangerous feel as previous outings.
Teams are going to look to work him out of matches, especially as he shows how good he can be. The road will get tougher as more teams get footage of his game, recognize him as a danger-man, and look to eliminate him as a threat. This may have been an off day for Smith Rowe, but it is also a message that he will need to continue to elevate his game to overcome that oppositional adversity.
Central pivot success
With Partey being subbed into the match in the 69th minute, it felt like a real tryout for Granit Xhaka and Dani Ceballos. Oddly, it was hard to tell who made the better case. Ceballos was outstanding in the first half and used his minutes well, but Xhaka really come on in the second half as his role expanded and he covered a lot of ground box to box.
Ceballos left the game with 1 key pass, 8/8 long balls which were outstanding pickouts, 3/3 dribbles, 4 duels won, 2 interceptions, 1 tackle, and 7 recoveries. He did a great job of helping Arsenal out from the back, getting himself on the ball often, and looking to change the point of the attack. He looked a little leggy in the second half which certainly contributed to him being subbed off, but I could also believe it was predetermined that he would make way later and should put it all out there early.
Granit Xhaka on the other hand really demonstrated why I deemed him “steady Eddie“. With 99 passes —59 in the opposition’s half — 7/8 long balls, 10 duels won, 3 clearances, 2/2 dribbles, 6 tackles, and 13 recoveries he was great. That second half was a great example of what Xhaka can offer when he is at his best. He was a little loose with passes at times, but did good work to win the ball back.
Although their play didn’t result in anything on the scoreboard, it is hard to determine who makes a better case to be Partey’s permanent partner. Even if you have one in mind, I find it difficult to suggest the other was far off after today’s match. Definitely a battle to keep eyes on.
Tierney is Arsenal’s left side
Wow. I am not sure there is a player in Arsenal’s side that makes this large of a difference in the team’s performance. It has been clear this whole year just how good Tierney is, but yesterday we saw how impotent Arsenal’s left side attacking bias is without him. Arsenal missed his left foot, they missed his ability to drive toward the endline and serve a great cross, and they certainly missed his energy and fire.
It’s worrying that Tierney may be in line to miss a few more matches depending on how serious this injury actually is.
Chances are, this won’t be the last frustrating match against a low block. Arsenal were up to the challenge against West Brom, they managed the task against Brighton, but Crystal Palace proved to be another step up in quality when it came to putting up a wall of defenders.
It’s going to continue to be on an ongoing challenge for at least the rest of this season.
A tough match, a tough watch, and one point gained.